A federal jury’s decision earlier this month to hold Sheriff Lee Baca personally liable for the savage beating of an inmate provides yet more proof of the deep-seated culture of violence in Los Angeles County’s jails.
The jury took the extremely rare — and courageous — step of finding Baca personally responsible for the actions of deputies who punched, kicked, tasered and battered Men’s Central Jail inmate Tyler Willis with a metal flashlight in 2009, leaving him with broken bones and head injuries.
The jury’s message is clear: The savage violence that has plagued L.A.’s jails is rooted in deficient leadership, and Baca must pay for his failure.
But just as telling as the jury’s decision was Baca’s response, as expressed by Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore. “We respect juries, but they made a mistake,” Whitmore said. Baca plans to appeal.
Unfortunately, Baca’s failure to accept responsibility is nothing new. Even as evidence detailing extreme, pervasive deputy violence in the jails has mounted, spurring federal investigations, Baca and LASD officials have continued to bury their heads deep in the sand.
When the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence blamed Baca and then-Undersheriff Paul Tanaka for a “failure of leadership” that permitted a culture of rampant deputy-on-inmate abuse to fester, Whitmore replied: “We dispute the finding that there has been an inadequate level of leadership.”
When the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California exposed an ongoing, pervasive pattern of horrific deputy-on-inmate abuse in 2011 — with attacks corroborated by sworn statements from four civilian eyewitnesses, including two jail chaplains, and scores of inmates — Baca lashed out, saying “[t]ruth is hard to find if you’re in a rush, and the ACLU obviously felt a rush to get the report out. They don’t have any substantial proof other than accusations.”
And when Baca gave a deposition under oath in 2010, he claimed to have no memory of having signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2002 to improve treatment of inmates with mental illness in L.A.’s jails. The DOJ recently announced that it is investigating both mental health care and excessive force in the jails.
In each of these instances, Baca was wrong. His responses were an attempt to minimize or hide the abuse that occurs under his command. Further investigation has repeatedly revealed the extent of the woes in the jails. After Baca dismissed the ACLU’s reports of excessive force in 2011, for example, the Board of Supervisors created the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence, citing the ACLU’s report and a federal criminal investigation into deputy violence in the jails as reasons for its decision. The commission confirmed that there was a long-standing pattern of deputy-on-inmate violence in the jails.
The current case — Willis v. Vasquez — provides even more evidence that Baca and other top-level officials ignored abuse taking place under their watch. Deputies beat Willis with a heavy flashlight — even though Merrick Bobb, special counsel to Board of Supervisors, had warned against the use of such weapons six years earlier.
In holding Baca liable for punitive damages, the jury had to meet an extremely high bar, finding that Baca’s actions were “malicious, oppressive, or in reckless disregard” of Willis’ rights. Moreover, unlike ordinary damages, which compensate the victim for his or her injuries, punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant.
Peeling back the curtain on L.A.’s jails has brought profound, but long overdue, change to the system. LASD has implemented some new policies, and use of force against inmates has declined. Until Baca remembers and acknowledges the past, it is unlikely that the full scope of reform necessary in the jails will occur. And we will all lose out.
Hector Villagra, Executive Director
Wednesday, 29 October 2013